The comic book that changed the world 

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story's vital role in the Civil Rights Movement

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COURTESY OF FELLOWSHIP OF RECONCILIATION / FORUSA.ORG
  • Courtesy of Fellowship of Reconciliation / forusa.org

"We Negroes, particularly in the South," wrote King, "have a special opportunity to demonstrate the power of love to reconcile racial differences. This book will help to spread the word around."

The most successful tactic was the personal dissemination of the comic book. FOR field secretaries Rev. Jim Lawson, Abernathy, and Smiley embarked on a tour visiting black churches and schools in eight Southern states. They held nonviolence workshops and seminars where they distributed Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as well as the FOR pamphlet "How to Practice Nonviolence."

Lawson was quick to point out to me that the comic book was one tool among many that he and FOR were using in their work to spread the message of nonviolence. "The comic book was in the context of a larger curriculum as I taught it around the South and used it," he said. "Part of its value was that it gave people a brief story of a very effective nonviolent campaign, something that they could refer to and memorize and study. And it also gave them some of the ways in which Martin King had struggled and taught nonviolence. I would have the comic books available free of charge but then I would discuss the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the purpose of insisting it was a major illustration of the power of nonviolence action, of nonviolent politics."

It worked. By 1958, sit-ins were taking place in Wichita, Kan., where Lawson led workshops and distributed the comic book during his tour. The protests didn't receive much media attention, but they were just the beginning. As the last leaves fell and the season turned from fall to winter in 1959, students in Nashville participating in Lawson's workshops at First Baptist Church began preparing their own sit-in campaign. In November and December of 1959, students trained by Lawson, including Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and Diane Nash led test sit-ins that focused on establishing the fact of discriminatory business practices and avoided direct confrontation.

In January of 1960, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story found its way to Greensboro, N.C., and into the hands of 18-year-old North Carolina A&T State University student Ezell Blair. After reading it, Blair decided to show it to his roommate, Joseph McNeil. Blair and McNeil had been in contact with local civil rights activists but, as the story goes, it was when McNeil finished reading the comic book that he made a decision of historic importance, declaring, "Let's have a boycott!"

On Feb. 1, 1960, Blair, McNeil, and two other local students staged a sit-in at Woolworths, becoming forever known as the Greensboro Four. The next day, the front page of the Greensboro Record featured a quote from Blair who "declared that Negro adults 'have been complacent and fearful. It is time for someone to wake up and change the situation ... and we decided to start here.'"

The story of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story did not end with the Civil Rights Movement in the American South. In fact, the full story of its influence probably has yet to unfold. Shortly after the comic book was first published in the United States, FOR published a Spanish-language edition that was printed and distributed throughout Latin America. The art was redrawn but the cover remained the same. Over the next two decades, other translated editions appeared alongside nonviolent movements.

The comic book was distributed in South Africa among those resisting the apartheid regime. A young missionary named Jerome Nkosi read the comic book in Johannesburg, where he was working as a missionary. In July of 1959, Nkosi wrote a letter to FOR describing the inspiration he felt after reading the comic book.

"I feel all the more challenged to do what I can to apply the suggestions outlined in the closing pages to our local situations which, as you well know, are far from being commendable," he said. The comic book was eventually banned in South Africa for its allegedly incendiary content.

In 2006, a young woman named Dalia Ziada rediscovered the comic book and began the process of creating an Arabic and Farsi translation. Ziada learned of King's writings while attending a civil rights conference in Cairo. "It was amazing and really moved me," Ziada told me. "Since then, I decided to use nonviolent strategies in everything in my life, starting from my personal life to major political participation and civil problems, and it worked perfectly!"

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